Where on the Curve?

I happened to pick up and re-read Ahead of the Curve by Philip Delves Broughton during the last few days. His wry account of his two-year MBA at Harvard Business School garnered a lot of attention and mixed reviews when it came out last year. The HBS administration, students, and alumni were predictably unhappy (PDB was unperturbed). The general reading public and editorial reviewers were more positive. A friend of mine read it recently and summed it up as "interesting for the context of what happens at HBS, but a bad book."

My purpose here is not to write another book review. In general I enjoyed reading it (twice) and recommend it - he is a witty writer and, while he may exaggerate for effect in some instances, his depiction in many respects rings true with what I've heard from myriad other sources. (Incidentally, buried in the generally critical Harbus review is the stat that 60% of students find PDB's portrayal "generally accurate", which the editor spins as "not an altogether convincing majority.") The two specific questions PDB raises that most struck me on the second reading are whether HBS helps its students to 1), be morally effective business leaders, and 2), successfully balance their work and family lives.

On the former, I don't subscribe to the ridiculous meme that greed originated at Harvard Business School (although it's hardly where greed goes to die, either). But read this anecdote...
It became a running joke in our section that if we ever discussed a company struggling to increase its value, members of the skydeck would start pumpin their arms up and down as if jacking up a car. It was the sign to "lever up," to load up the balance sheet with debt.
... and then tell me, out of every ten of these guys who ended up on Wall Street, how many of them do you think stood up to their bosses and protested that excessive leverage and securitization and systemic risk-taking would lead to disaster, rather than keeping their heads down and dancing until the music stopped? Granted I'm making this point rhetorically here, but I don't think it's an issue HBS should be blasé about (and judging from the MBA oath, students agree).

The latter is best summed up by PDB's classmate Nate near the end of the book:
"Lots of people seemed more interested in a number, the amount they would earn, than the life or future that would entail. And yet, when I think back to every case we studied and every protagonist who came to class, every visiting speaker, it seemed like all of them said 'I was a bad spouse' or 'I was a bad parent.' Not one of them could say, 'my family was a smashing success.'... But then when you saw how our class made choices, you saw they would do what these people do, not what they say."
It is a constant motif throughout the book - every time a Meg Whitman or a Jack Welch or a senior MD from a bulge-bracket bank comes to speak, their professional achievements are lionized and their corresponding personal failures are breezily ignored. The speakers who traded off fast-track success for the quiet life of being home for dinner every night and coaching their sons and daughters' sports teams are nowhere to be seen.

If in an unscientific exercise I count what proportion of HBS grads I know who are thrilled with their family lives, I know more who aren't than who are (and that holds for 5 and 10 years out of school, not just the first few). There's selection bias because I work in management consulting, but PDB shows it's clearly an issue of wide concern among the student body, and yet the vast majority of grads walk eyes-wide-open into jobs they know will not provide them the flexibility they want. Nate concludes:
"It was a surprise to me how making the right choices coming out of HBS would require real intestinal fortitude, a real functioning moral compass, because the forces pushing you to pursue success in a very specific way were overwhelming."
What is striking is not that these trade-offs are hard, because they most certainly are; what's striking is that even for this supremely accomplished and talented student body, the courage to make them seems tantalizingly beyond most.

HBS is a phenomenal institution that teaches many good things to a stellar student body, and PDB himself candidly admits he enjoyed his time there and is glad he went. But his book also raises insightful, probing questions which HBS' track record does little to rebut.


  1. Great discussion, and loved how you linked to lots of other perspectives on the book. I found PDBs response a little light. I would have loved to see him systematically respond to the critiques, rather than just a rather short response.

    Also in reading the HBS perspectives, it felt like they were seemingly questioning the accuracy of the book, but more than anything were upset at the perspective. I guess I would feel a little defensive as well. Also I guess I felt like it was also a critique of my life in management consulting.

    I feel like this parallels a typical Michael Moore work. Part documentary, party commentary, mostly accurate but with heavy spin. I always noted that for however much MM skews his stories, he rarely gets sued because he so diligently checks his facts.

    Do more reviews/critiques like this!

  2. Thanks for the comment!! Agree that PDB's response could have been far more substantive. There is a point-by-point rebuttal to be done by whoever has the time to make it... (finger on nose)...

    I find your comparison to Michael Moore provocative, because I find his films incredibly irritating (whereas I enjoyed Ahead of the Curve very much)... but I can't put my finger on the difference, so maybe my response is more emotional than logical (probably some combination of familiarity/interest in the content and enjoyment of PDB's humor).